Robert Earl Stewart can be lively: “Dopplering gibbous. Cricket/moon./ Sweetgrass and loosestrife/alive in the night/ditches.” He can also be clever: a poem that refers to Sisyphus is presented in such a way that it loops endlessly. Something Burned Along the Southern Border leaves the impression of a poet who is comfortable with the craft.
And yet, his talent can also seem somewhat aimless; many of the poems lack urgency or undercut themselves. For instance, Stewart occasionally uses a distinctive system of lining: a two-line stanza with its second line indented, followed by another two-line stanza with its first line indented; this four-line pattern repeats, subject to intermittent variation. Sometimes this configuration shakes loose a fresher appreciation of the words, but just as often it simply feels awkward, gimmicky.
When the work is less muddled, as in the sequence concerning the death of his mother, the reader is left with strong images and memorable moments, but often it appears almost deliberately submerged in murk. “Kiosk,” cryptic and brief, is a nearly perfect fable about a baby who coughs up a key and a man who tests it on locks all over town, to no avail. The poem draws to a close when “Upon arriving home, he tried it on/the neighbours’ side door, and it worked.” But this is not the ending — the final line of the poem is “Man, this baby was going to be fun to have around.”
Perhaps Stewart felt that the poem had been taking itself too seriously, or perhaps, dissatisfied with mainstream notions of poetic unity, he simply wanted it to fall apart. In any case, he has successfully blunted its impact. There’s a point at which self-awareness turns into self-consciousness, and the latter tends to derail these poems. (Daniel Marrone)
by Robert Earl Stewart, $16.95 124 pgs, Mansfield Press, 25 Mansfield Ave, Toronto, ON, M6J 2A9